Thursday, August 23, 2007

Window on Eurasia: Ethnic Subdivisions in Russian Nation Behind Moscow’s Policies on Ukraine, Belarus

Paul Goble

Vienna, August 23 – Ethnographers have focused for many years on ethnic subdivisions within the Great-Russian nationality of the Russian Federation, but now a Moscow political scientist has described the way in which these “sub-ethnoses” have affected Russia’s approach to its Slavic neighbors.
In the latest issue of the online journal “Politicheskiy klass,” Andrei Okara describes the three major subethnic groups within the Russian nation and the ways in which their relative power position over the last generation has affected Moscow’s approach to Ukraine and Belarus (
As have many earlier analysts, Okara says that there are three major “sub-ethnoses” within the Russian nationality: the northern Great-Russians, the southern Great-Russians and the Siberians, each of whom some have argued in fact constitute a separate nation in much the same way Ukrainians and Belarusians do.
When “southern Great-Russians” were in power in Moscow under Nikita Khrushchev, Leonid Brezhnev and Mikhail Gorbachev, Okara suggests, “it was quite simple to find a common language and mutual understanding with the Ukrainian political elite.”
But Boris Yeltsin, who came from the Urals and thus was part of the Siberian sub-ethnos, never “found a common language with the Ukrainian elite.” And Vladimir Putin, who hails from St. Petersburg and thus is from “the northern Great-Russian” group, has viewed Ukraine as occupying “a place on the periphery.”
And because of that, Okara argues, the current Russian president has adopted an approach to Ukraine which is “deeply pragmatic” rather than driven by ethnically defined values and has found it easier to relate to Belarus, whose cultural values are closer to the northern Great-Russians than to the southern Great-Russians or the Siberians.
Because of these underlying cultural values, the Moscow political scientist continues, Moscow’s policies toward Kyiv and Minsk are likely to continue with few changes given that there is little chance that the groups and clans now dominating the Russian capital are likely to be replaced by others from different sub-ethnic communities.
These subethnic divisions, he continues, could also play a role as “the foundation for a new conception of ‘official nationality’” in the Russian Federation. They could serve, Okara argues, in many of the same ways the 15 republics did in Soviet times or the Uvarov trinity of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationality”did in the nineteenth century.
That possibility is all the more likely, Okara says, because there is another important divide among Russians at the level of nationality and because of Russians’ continuing interest in and belief that they must be attached to certain kinds of super-ethnic messianic goals.
Within the Russian ethnos in post-Soviet times, Okara notes, there is the deep and controversial division between those who identify as “Rossiyane” – that is members of the Russian civic nation – and “Velikorusy” -- members of the Great Russian nation of all three kinds.
By playing up the importance of the three Russian subethnoses, he suggests, the government in Moscow could help to bridge that divide and thus heal some of what are now open wounds in Russian national identity. Moreover, by doing so, Moscow might also ease relations between the ethnic Russians and non-Russian groups.
The continuing interest of Russians in identifying with something larger than their ethnic community, in what one could call “a super-ethnos,” Okara suggests, also could be facilitated in this way, by allowing Russians to behave ethnically while allowing them to expand ties with ethnic Russians abroad and to identify with broader causes.
By way of conclusion, Okara argues that the Russian government must work to ensure that ethnic, subethnic and superethnic identities remain in balance. If the three are out of balance, he suggests, the future of the Great-Russians could be even more traumatic than their recent past.

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